Expos 20

Expos 20 is the cornerstone course offering by the Harvard College Writing Program and fulfills the College's expository writing requirement.


When you enter your Expos classroom this fall or spring, you will be participating in one of Harvard's oldest traditions; a one-term course in expository writing has been the one academic experience required of every Harvard student since the writing program was founded in 1872. You will also be embarking on one of the most intensive classes you will take at Harvard. In no other class will you get to concentrate directly on the craft of composing and revising your ideas, and rarely will you receive as much personal attention from an instructor as you do in Expos. The Expos philosophy is that writing and thinking are inseparably related and that good thinking requires good writing. Although your instructor will critique the style of your papers in Expos, you will spend most of your time in class on strategies of argument--discovering and arranging persuasive ideas and evidence through a process of drafting and revising. 


Students enter Expos with varied writing abilities. Several years ago one student told her teacher after the second or third class, “I’m sitting there with Jane Austen on my left and Tolstoy on my right, and I’m scared to death.” No doubt many students share this feeling. Some students in Expos are skilled and knowledgeable. But others have trouble arriving at a concept or a worthwhile thesis, and many have difficulty in organizing a paper that makes what they want to say clear and cogent. Expos presents an opportunity for students of all abilities to make progress. That progress, however, may not be measured by how a person feels about her or his writing, and it does not come in orderly and regular increments. At times all writers imagine that they have done badly when others think they have done well, and at other times suppose they have produced immortal prose when in fact others cannot understand what they have tried to say. And while some students enter the course as weak writers and make dramatic progress by the end of the term, others come with greater strength and work just as hard to move from good to excellent. But in the end nearly all Expos students identify some particular areas where their writing improved.

The improvement comes from sustained effort. Expos provides a framework for writing, an audience of peers, and a sympathetic and experienced teacher, but the final responsibility for learning lies in each student’s motivation to write well. The demand may sometimes feel relentless, but as one teacher wrote about her course and about Expos generally:

Writing regularly on demand for an exacting critic is, thus, perhaps one of the most important aspects of Expos. If all goes well, gradually over the weeks, the identity of the critic will change so that by the end of the term, the student will have learned to be his or her own best (severest) critic. A heightened awareness of the importance of choosing one’s words carefully, an impatience with clichés of thought and expression, some sense of the pleasures to be found in sharpening meaning to a razor's edge, and the rewards of rewriting are some of the by-products that a receptive student can expect to retain from a term of Expository Writing.


Expos 20 is taught in sections, which allows students to choose a course that suits their interests. It also ensures that each class has no more than the maximum number of students allowed so that every student can receive as much individual attention as possible.

Each Expos 20 course focuses on a certain topic and group of issues; no previous knowledge of the topic is required for any course. None of the 30 or more Expos 20 courses attempts a comprehensive introduction to a field of study or a survey of a body of art or knowledge, but rather seeks to provide a substantive intellectual occasion for writing. Expos is first and last a course in writing. Although each course has its own required texts, the focus of whatever course a student chooses will be on strategies of academic writing and strategies of reading in order to write.

In Expos we teach students the fundamentals of writing academic argument as it is expected in Harvard’s undergraduate courses. We teach students how to

  • pose an analytical question or problem that will make a paper’s argument necessary;
  • craft a thesis that is arguable, not self-evident or descriptive;
  • substantiate the thesis with thoughtfully analyzed evidence;
  • anticipate and respond to objections to an argument;
  • structure an argument logically;
  • use primary and secondary sources responsibly, including how to avoid plagiarizing.

Expos 20 also introduces students to the fundamental steps of writing research papers. Students learn how to

  • locate and evaluate sources in both the physical and online resources of Harvard’s libraries;
  • create an annotated bibliography in order to help students understand the roles that their sources will play in their papers;
  • integrate and properly cite their sources.


Every preceptor (the faculty rank of all Expos instructors) requires three papers, each between five and ten pages long and of increasing length and complexity as the semester proceeds. Although each paper requires students to make an argument, the papers are of different kinds, not only reflecting different approaches to the particular subject being considered, but also reflecting the range of assignment types at Harvard. The first paper assignment typically involves closely examining evidence from a single source. The second assignment often asks students to apply a theory or concept to a pool of evidence, or compare two or more sources. By the end of the semester, students conduct research for their third paper, often to intervene in a scholarly debate. Throughout the semester, students learn the fundamentals of how to integrate and cite sources, and how to avoid plagiarism.

To prepare for each paper, students write one or more short response papers. Each paper is revised at least once. Students will have a conference with their preceptor about each paper between the draft and the revision. Students receive extensive feedback from their preceptors on drafts and revisions, including written comments and one-on-one conferences about their drafts and at least three or four class discussions devoted to considering drafts by students in the class.

Finally, since every Expos class is conducted as a seminar, preceptors not only welcome but also count on student participation in discussions. Because each section meets just twice a week for 75 minutes, and the classes build on each other, preceptors expect consistent attendance.